This Is Us star Chris Sullivan on Kate and Toby's split: 'It wasn't going to be Randall and Beth'

The season 5 finale of This Is Us revealed the breakup of a key Pearson couple who have two young kids. Actually, let's make that two breakups. In addition to having Madison (Caitlin Thompson) call it quits with Kevin (Justin Hartley) on their wedding day, NBC's twisty family drama brought to light that the couple known as KaToby will be... hmm, what's the best word here?... kaput.

Throughout the finale's present-day story, things looked iffy for Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan), as the latter struggled with being a stay-at-home dad and having secretly secured a job in San Francisco. Kate understandably did not take it well when Toby finally shared his new employment news with her, yet the two managed to find compromise/common ground and recommitted to their relationship. And then came the wallop: That flash-forward story turned out not to be Kevin's wedding day, but Kate's. And she wasn't renewing her vows to Toby — she was marrying Phillip (Chris Geere), the grumpy music teacher at Jack's school. There's plenty about that split to process, and the actors at the (broken) heart of it are still doing so, as you will learn in this interview with This Is Us star Chris Sullivan, who will be vying for a Supporting Actor Emmy next month.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congrats on your second nomination. How surprised were you this time?

CHRIS SULLIVAN: I'm pretty surprised. I'm pretty confident and proud of the work that we've all done this last year, but in a world with as much content and as much incredible creativity and output right now, I was pleasantly surprised and definitely honored to be included in that list of actors.

John Lithgow… Bradley Whitford… Giancarlo Esposito… Michael K. Williams… How do you like your chances against these guys? I mean, who's even heard of them?

Listen, my chances aren't good. [Laughs] But the good news is, I will be invited into all the parties. If they happen.... It's incredible company to keep. And it gives me a reason to introduce myself and have a conversation with all of them. I mean, the category is literally a list of my favorite actors. So it's a nice ice breaker to be included in the nominees. I was excited to be included in the predictions to be nominated. [Laughs]. So to actually be nominated is even a step up from that.

What was the best thing that happened on Emmy-nomination morning?

My manager texted and told me that I'd been nominated, and then I had to go upstairs and tell my wife and we celebrated, but the baby had just gone down for a nap. So it was this weird muted whisper celebration. That was very much straight out of a Dan Fogelman sitcom.

What was it like to film this show during the pandemic? And how does season 5 — in terms of the work you put in — stand out to you?

My perspective on the world, and the priorities that I have in my life have all shifted since Bear [his son] has arrived [during the pandemic]. His existence, his presence in my life has — especially this last season — I felt more present on set. There was a new importance put on the work we were doing, but it wasn't the same as it has been in the past. It felt more collaborative, it felt more like we were really doing something together — even though the show may have seemed more disjointed, as far as storylines go and focusing on individuals to keep people quarantined and safe. It was a really calm and focused season, ironically enough.

What was the most challenging scene for you to pull off in season 5? Waiting in the parking lot for the surrogate to give birth? Reaching out to Toby's father for help with the leaky pipe and more? Defensively turning down Kevin's money?

The scenes in the parking lot of the hospital with Michael O'Neill were incredible. He's a legend in our industry and a wonderful man. That evening in the parking lot of the hospital was a special night of work. That scene with Kevin at his house was tricky to navigate. One, I am just so over the moon and taken with Justin Hartley, that whenever we face off, it's difficult for us to stay focused because we enjoy each other's work and just being in each other's presence so much. Actually being mad at the man was some of the best acting I've ever done [laughs], because he's just so lovely. That was a long day. On top of that, eating sushi for 30 minutes is wonderful. But eating sushi for six hours can begin to weigh on a man's stomach and a man's mind.

Let's jump to the end of the finale. That was quite a twist. Viewers were well aware that Toby and Kate's marriage was imperfect, and the glimpses into their future seems hazy at best. How long have you known about this? And what was your reaction when Dan [Fogelman, the show's creator] told you?

We didn't know how or when it might all occur. But we've known for awhile. And of course, as soon as Dan told Chrissy and I, it was very sad. That's tricky information to have when you're just rolling along, enjoying this romantic comedy of a relationship. To know that eventually it's going to dissolve is hard to handle. But if This Is Us is a handbook on relationships and exploring every aspect of a relationship, somebody has got to split up — and it wasn't going to be Randall and Beth. [Laughs] It's a difficult part of a relationship to discuss, but I know it's going to be handled delicately.

When you say "a while ago," was that…?

A couple of years ago.

This Is Us
This Is Us

Ron Batzdorff/NBC Chrissy Metz as Kate, Chris Sullivan as Toby on 'This Is Us.'

Chrissy said that she started crying when she found out about the split and she tried to jokingly talk the writers out of it. She also said that she didn't talk to you a lot about it because that would almost make it too real. Have you talked about it more since then?

We've had to talk about it a little more toward the end of the season, but we don't really talk [about it]. I mean, there's nothing really to talk about. It's not a fun thing to talk about. And it's not like there's anything we can do about it. If it were a real relationship, it certainly would be time to talk about it [laughs].

What was your reaction when this story became more real?

I think there was a somber acceptance of understanding what Dan and the writers were trying to do. It'll be an interesting challenge — for both of us.

Did Toby make too many scalp tickling demands? Or was it another play by Lady Kryptonite?

I don't know how the eventuality of it all is going to play out. If you're trying to ask me whose fault it is, I actually don't know. I'm glad I don't know. [Laughs]

Audiences have seen Toby making decision after decision not to share key parts of his struggle with Kate, whether it involves CrossFit or more recently about being a stay-at-home dad and his job search. In your mind, how much of a communication gap is at the root of their demise?

I'm certain of it. I mean, communication gaps are probably 90 percent of how separations like this come to pass. Everybody has a part and then when things fall apart, everyone's trying to figure out who has 51 percent of the fault, because none of us want to face the part that we played. I'm sure the reckoning will be painful. For both of them.

What intrigues you about this development, in terms of things to play in the final season? We still need to fill in many blanks that take us to their split, but it also seems likely to be related to the toll of a long-distance relationship. When Toby asked Kevin about long-distance relationships, he said they were horrible….

The position that Toby and Kate are in is not unusual for people. So it does intrigue me to see how Dan and the writers try to navigate this, because it will be information for the audience. It will be helpful. It will be enlightening. It will be maybe information that they can use in their own life on how to navigate something like this. Or not navigate something like this. Sometimes having the information you need means that things don't work out — and that's just the way it goes sometimes....

What's scary for people is not that things go bad and relationships ends. I think what is scary for people is that you can actually love someone with all of your heart and it still doesn't work out. One of the important things to learn about navigating the ending of a relationship is that a lot of people will sabotage a relationship over a long period of time in order to feel comfortable ending it, instead of just saying, "I love you. And that's why I can't do this anymore."

Do you know how imminent their split is?

I don't know timelines. Broad strokes. I think Dan didn't want us to be surprised by it, but he also doesn't want us getting too bogged down on the details of it until we need to be.

While some fans were dealing with feelings of, "Oh crap, these two aren't going to make it," they did see how happy Kate was in that flash forward. Obviously he doesn't look great when we see him in the distant future, but have you thought about how Toby is doing in this flash-forward four years from now? He might even be at the wedding.

Yeah, he might even be there. Hopefully he's doing all right. I'm sure it's going to be difficult no matter what. But yeah, in that timeline, that's going to be a difficult day for him.

We see Kevin and Madison getting along well in that four-year flash forward at Kate's wedding. You hope that Toby and Kate are at least co-parenting well, and maybe they came to a realization and it's not that bitter—

Listen, if Toby was readily invited to be at Rebecca's bedside, as she's nearing the end of her life, then it seems to me that something has worked out peacefully.

Agree. It's just interesting that Randall was making that call instead of Kate.


And what do we make of the new guy, played by Chris Geere?

Yeah, I don't know what to make of him! He's a brilliant actor. We know that much. As far as the character goes, I don't have enough information. Jury's out. But so far he ends up with my wife, so he can't be that great.

Do you think Toby was a bit selfish in pursuing this out-of-town job to get back in the game when he's already so overwhelmed by his commitments? They just adopted a second child. He battles depression. He has so much on his plate.

Yeah, I think there's some selfishness involved. I think there's some panic involved. I think there's some genuine concern for the wellbeing of his family involved. But yes, fear plays into a lot of people's decisions. And I think fear is definitely a big part of this.

You said you don't know too much about season 6, but could you give readers a cryptic clue about Toby's journey in the final season?

I know that decisions will be boldly made. That's what I know. As far as the details go, I can't speak to many more of them. But there's going to be strong decisions.

Is there one scene that you're dying to see happen before it's all over?

There doesn't seem to be any way that Toby can have a conversation with Jack directly, but This Is Us has surprised us before. And if there was a way to do that, that's the man I'd love to meet.

Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring Emmys analysis, exclusive interviews, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's TV shows and performances.

Related content: